Celebrity chef serves up squirrel, beaver recipes

The wild-haired leader of a culinary rebellion in Canada has produced a back-to-the-land cookbook in which squirrel becomes sushi and the beloved beaver gets butchered.

Cookbook also includes maple syrup-based dishes

A squirrel forages for food in Toronto on Nov. 30, 2009. Chris Young/Canadian Press

The wild-haired leader of a culinary rebellion in Canada has produced a back-to-the-land cookbook in which squirrel becomes sushi and the beloved beaver gets butchered.

Don't tell the folks at the Ottawa winter festival about Martin Picard's latest creation.

If organizers forbade him from serving foie gras at last year's event because of a backlash by animal-rights activists that prompted him to cancel his appearance altogether, it's unclear how they'd react to his new dish, named "Confederation Beaver" — that is, the buck-toothed national emblem stuffed with its own tail in a slow-cooked sauce of cream and pig's blood.

This second cookbook from the celebrity Montreal chef emphasizes, sometimes with quite graphic pictures, a philosophy of cuisine that has made him a hero to like-minded foodies.

In part, it's about bringing us closer to our food. To its origins in nature, to its convivial traditions, to a time when it could be gobbled down in blissful naivete of such modern-day preoccupations as cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

Hence his new publication celebrating that most enduring cornerstone of the Quebecois culinary tradition: the sugar shack, or cabane a sucre.

To be clear, "Au Pied De Cochon Sugar Shack" carries only one small section filled with lessons such as how to skin the fur from forest rodents and how to braise a beaver's tail until it's suitable for stuffing.

The glossy 380-page manual also contains an illustrated history of sugar shacks filled with family anecdotes; a guide to producing maple syrup; a short story envisioning a post-apocalyptic world where all that's left is the sugar shack; and, of course, 100-plus recipes ranging from familiar desserts to fusion foods.

Special ingredient

There is one constant in this book: maple syrup.

There's maple butter, maple sugar cream, maple sugar candy, hard maple sugar, granulated maple sugar — as well as tourtiere, bread, curried veal, calf's brain, lentil and cabbage stew, and pea soup with foie gras, all including maple syrup.

In his introduction to the book, Picard argues the springtime delicacy is such an essential part of Quebec's culture, history and geography that it should be taught in school curricula. He laments that its value as a culinary resource is under-appreciated.

"Almost everywhere you go, maple syrup seems to appear only at the breakfast table," Picard writes. "The one thing people around the world associate with maple syrup, from the Americans to the French to the Japanese, are pancakes.

"Time to wake up, people."

Jolting people to attention has been Picard's stock-in-trade for some time now.

The 45-year-old Montrealer has hosted a show, "The Wild Chef," on the Food Network. His original cookbook sold about 50,000 copies.

And he now has a popular sugar shack in St-Benoit-de-Mirabel, near Montreal, where it can take more than a year to reserve a table. Each year, reservations are snapped up within hours after they become available.

The shack served as the production facility for the 400 litres of syrup that went into creating Picard's latest cookbook recipes. It was also the site of his book launch Thursday.